I-Team: Las Vegas Sheriff Talks Gun Control

Ed. Note: The national debate about gun violence and gun control has generated strong emotions on all sides following the recent tragedies in Connecticut and Colorado. Should Americans' Second Amendment rights be restricted in the interests of public safety, or is gun violence something that no law could curb? This is Part 8 of Guns of Nevada.

LAS VEGAS -- The National Rifle Association and other gun rights supporters are vowing to block any changes to the nation's gun laws and to target lawmakers who vote to support the policies advanced by President Barack Obama in Tuesday night's State of the Union address.

One of the law enforcement professionals who has offered advice to the president is Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie.

He and other lawmen gathered at the White House a few weeks ago to talk about a possible ban on assault weapons and other ideas.

The I-Team wanted to give the sheriff the last word as the first phase of the ongoing Guns of Nevada series wraps up -- and there's good reason for that.

Every gun crime, every gun assault or murder, or case of self defense makes its way to Gillespie's desk. No one sees more of the carnage than he, and no employer has so many of his own people who are literally in the line of fire every day.

What if any changes might we, as a nation, enact to make a dent in gun violence? And are there simply too many guns out there?

"I think it's too many in the wrong people's hands," Gillespie said.

That, in a nutshell, is Gillespie's take on guns. It is too easy, he said, for the wrong people to get their hands on firearms.

Example: Boston mob boss Whitey Bulger, wanted for 19 murders, and for years, the subject of a nationwide manhunt. When he was finally caught in California, lawmen found 16 guns scattered in Bulger's apartment, at least a few of them traced back to Nevada. Gillespie said he thinks a wily criminal like Bulger would find a way to get a gun but that it shouldn't be easy for him.

"Whether you're talking about people in Michigan or Maryland or California, they are going to give you examples of people who slipped through the cracks, but that doesn't mean you don't talk about how to improve it," Gillespie said.

Of all the changes during his years in law enforcement, the biggest is the weapons available to criminals. Many types of crime have declined over the past six years, but guns have made it far more dangerous for cops on the street.

"When I first started policing here in Las Vegas, when you came across someone with a gun, it wasn't necessarily a very good gun," he said. "That's not the case today. They have very good guns. They have as good of guns as the officers carry day-to-day, and there is more of them out there. ... Being a police officer today is a more dangerous job than when I started and a lot of it has to do with the weaponry the criminal element has."

Does that mean Gillespie favors a proposed ban on so-called assault weapons, including the Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle that did most of the damage during the Sandy Hill Elementary School massacre last December? The answer is no. The sheriff was one of the lawmen invited to meet with Obama a few weeks ago to help craft national gun policy. He advised that a ban on future sales of military-type weapons would have minimal effect on crime but would hamper the ability to enact far more meaningful changes.

"I don't see that as a solution to the problem," he said. "No. 1, when you start talking about the assault weapon, you don't get any further. Everybody wants to talk about the assault weapon."

If the nation wants to do something that has a chance of passing and making a difference, how about factory installed locking mechanisms that would prevent a thief or unauthorized family member from using an assault rifle? Limiting the size of ammo magazines makes sense, the sheriff said. It might limit the damage a lone gunman might inflict. For example, bystanders tackled the Tucson gunman only when he stopped to reload. Six people died in that 2011 shooting.

A more meaningful change would be the enactment of universal background checks, Gillespie said. A poll conducted for 8 News NOW shows substantial support among Nevadans for a law requiring a background check for every gun purchase. Nationally, the support is even stronger.

"A CBS News/New York Times poll showed 92 percent of Americans support universal background checks -- that is, checks for all purchases," said Brian Fadie, a gun safety advocate for ProgressNow Nevada. "Ninety-two percent. You can't get 92 percent of Americans to agree that puppies are cute."

Yes, some would still get around such a law, but it would make it much easier for lawmen to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn't have them.

"So that people who are mentally ill don't get access to guns, so that people who are ex-felons and have lost their right to carry these guns don't get to carry them, and to put more checks and balances in regards to how you get access to those guns." Gillespie said.

Gillespie advised the president that while guns are a big part of the problem, a larger conversation needs to be launched.

"From our perspective, there is a problem in America, and that is violence, violent crime in our communities ... and we recommended to him as we did a year ago that a national commission be brought together to study it," he said. "Guns would be a part of that, but there are other issues as well."


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